Why does Bishop Heber school teach Chinese? Nigel Williamson finds out.
Tian xia ping," as the pupils of Bishop Heber community school in Cheshire would say. It means "peace under heaven" and, like most Chinese sayings, it was originally a phrase used by that inveterate quotation-monger Confucius.
Most of us know a saying or two coined by the ancient Chinese philosopher, for many of them have entered the English language. But few of us share the facility of the pupils at Bishop Heber to quote them in Mandarin Chinese. Yong Xin Gao, a 26-year-old teacher from Fujian province in China, is taking a class of half a dozen Year 9 students at the comprehensive school in the rural village of Malpas, near Chester. He writes complex Mandarin characters on the blackboard with dazzling alacrity to explain the six-fold tenets of Confucius's theory of moral conduct. His pupils repeat the words expertly in Mandarin. "This is the cultural root of China," he tells them in English.
Later in the staffroom, Mr Gao, who is on a year's placement at the school, is full of praise for his students. "I've been here two months and I thought it would be much more problematic," he says, clearly having been warned by the Chinese authorities to expect a far more decadent attitude towards study among western pupils. "Chinese children are very diligent scholars. Our culture is that if you are a student your business is study. I thought the discipline in the West would be very loose and free but at this school it's very strong. I've found there are far more similarities between Chinese and British children than there are differences." Yong Xin Gao is the fourth Chinese teacher to spend a year at Bishop Heber since it introduced Chinese into the curriculum in 1997. Designated as one of the 50 or so specialist language colleges in the country a year earlier, it was committed to teaching a non-European language.
"It was assumed it would be Japanese," says headteacher Michael Carding. "But it was at the time of the hand-over of Hong Kong and everyone was talking about China. We concluded that this was the future and as things open up over the next 10 years China is going to become a major global economic player. The culture is fascinating and mysterious and Mandarin Chinese, not English, is actually the most widely spoken language in the world, so we decided to go for it."
The initial problem was that the school did not have a Chinese-speaking teacher. The GAP organisation, which brings a dozen or more teachers from China to Britain every year, came to the rescue. "When I rang Michael Potter, who runs the exchange programme, he thought I was winding him up because all his Chinese teachers went into the independent sector and we were a rural comprehensive," Mr Carding recalls.
When Michael Potter realised Mr Carding was serious he drove up to Cheshire the next day. As a result the school recruited Zhu Hong Xia from the Jinling middle school in Nanjing, to which Bishp Heber is now formally linked. She began in September 1997 with 21 Year 9 pupils taking Chinese as a second language. "We were busking it when we started but we were determined to incorporate it fully into the curriculum and not run it as a lunchtime club or in twilight sessions," Michael Carding says.
The following year under a new teacher (all exchanges are for a single academic year), 10 of the original pupils opted for Chinese as a major subject. There are now more than 60 students studying the language, from Year 8 to the upper sixth-form, despite the fact that there is no GCSE in Mandarin Chinese suitable for non-native speakers. Instead, pupils sit the St Martin's College Bronze Award, administered by Lancaster University.
The school is recording excellent results but is also spearheading a campaign to introduce a GCSE in Chinese suitable for English-speaking students. "We're marshalling forces and presenting the arguments," Mr Carding says. "The exam boards don't want to spend money on setting it up. But it's the future. In 10 years' time plenty of schools are going to be doing Chinese, so it's an investment." Last year, Mr Carding and Mary-Lou Schofield, a French and German teacher who is Bishop Heber's Chinese co-ordinator and is now learning the language herself, organised a national conference for other schools with an interest in Chinese to raise the educational profile.
When sceptical parents ask Mr Carding why pupils should opt to study Chinese, he has two answers. "First, we've got a lot of bright kids and when it comes to university application if they've been studying Chinese for five years that's going to go down very well at interview. But second, it also chimes with the school's philosophy. We believe education should push the boundaries and broaden the horizons. It's a flagship for us."
Last summer, Michael Carding and Mary-Lou Schofield took 32 students on a two-week educational visit to China, where they stayed with the families of pupils from Jinling school. "It was an incredible experience and we've all stayed in regular e-mail contact with them," says Adam Richards, 16, one of the original students who is now in his fourth year of the subject. "A lot of people we met spoke English but we were able to practise our Chinese as well. I opted to do it because it was different and a challenge. But once you've learned to recognise the basic characters it's easier than you think because there are no tenses."
Eleanor Parrott, 17, was not a Chinese student when she went on the trip but has since enrolled. "I picked up a few words while I was there and I'm thinking about a language degree so I thought I'd give it a try. I've only been doing it for two months but I've been surprised how easy it has been to pick it up. It's actually a lot more logical than English."
* GAP is a not-for-profit organisation. Details: GAP Activity Projects, GAP House, 44 Queen's Road, Reading, RG1 4BB. Web: www.gap.org.uk